Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Lessons from Mahabharata: Black, White, and Coloured Too

he Mahabharata has lived for thousands of years for the reason that it serves as that vast ocean human emotions in which everyone can pour their own understanding and find acceptance without judgment.

There is an innate human desire to see and interpret things in a monochromatic palette of black-and-white. One could argue that stereotyping is an "energy-saving" device that allows us to make "efficient decisions on the basis of past experiences." ("Stereotypes as energy-saving devices: A peek inside the cognitive toolbox") . Therefore, is it any surprise that many of us look at the characters in the Mahabharata also through similar, stereotypical lenses? It simplifies things if we view Duryodhana as the jealous usurper, Shakuni as the manipulative uncle, Bhishma as the noble but helpless elder, Arjuna as the hero, Karna as the tragic and righteous hero fighting on the wrong side, and so on. No, it is not quite proper or kosher to include in this group of admirers (and critics) of the Mahabharata those that bring their own neuroses and neo-colonial prejudices!

Monday, December 2, 2019

Markandeya Purana, tr by Bibek Debroy

The Markandeya Purana, translated by Bibek Debroy

s far as Puranas go, the Markandeya Purana is the shortest Puranas. It is nowhere as long as the Skanda Purana (81,000 shlokas) or the Padma Purana (55,000). For more reasons than one, I like the Markandeya Purana a lot. The most obvious one is that it begins with questions about the Mahabharata. Those maddening, unending, unanswerable questions about the Mahabharata that anyone and everyone would have asked - why did the nirguna Janardana assume a human form? Why did Droupadi have to have five husbands? Why did Balarama have to travel to the tirthas to atone for the sin of killing a brahmana? And why did the sons of Droupadi have to die the death they did? Remember that they were killed after the war, in their sleep, by the son of Drona.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Lessons from Mahabharata: Envy – II

n the first part of this two part series focusing on the emotion of Envy, we learnt that despite the popular belief and the main proponent of the emotion in the epic tale, Duryodhan wasn't the only person driven by envy.

Let us now continue with more examples of envy as we meander through other stories and in the process receive our lessons from Mahabharata. While we are at it, let’s also see if there is some common thread connecting them.

Having married Droupadi and having settled in Indraprastha, the Pandvas were once visited by the sage Narada. They all greeted the sage, and after Droupadi left, Narada had a pointed question for the Pandavas. Given Droupadi’s beauty, how were they going to head off the green-headed monster that was envy? To illustrate his point, he told them the story of the two invincible asuras Sunda and Upasunda, who once lived in Kurukshetra. Yes, all roads did seem to lead to Kurukshetra.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Lessons from the Mahabharata - Envy 1

hat Duryodhana was driven by envy is known to all. He is also perhaps the best known example of an envious man in the entire epic. His whole life was one long, never ending, rage against his cousins, the Pandavas, who he thought had the better of everything – whether the palace at Indraprastha, whether a beautiful wife in Droupadi, whether in riches, his own “ordinary prosperity” never pleased him, was never enough. That much is well known. What is also known is that if Duryodhana’s envy was like a forest fire, it was Shakuni, his maternal uncle, that kept that fire burning. And we also know that Dhritarashtra, Duryodhana’s blind father was blind to every single fault of his son, turning a literal and figurative blind eye to his son’s faults.

But what about Gandhari? When Pandu was living the life of forced bachelorhood, in mortal fear of Sage Kimdama’s curse, he turned to his wife Kunti to beget sons. Kunti had Sage Durvasa’s mantra that she used to summon Yama, who begat Yudhishtra. Yudhishtra thus became the eldest Pandava. That is not strictly true, since Karna had been born some time back, but since no one but Kunti knew that secret, and because the poor little baby that was Karna  had been cast away in the river, for all practical purposes it was Yudhishtra who would be considered the eldest Pandava.

Meanwhile Gandhari had also been pregnant, but for inexplicable reasons had not given birth. When she heard news of Yudhishtra’s birth, she flew into a rage. A rage of frustration, anger, and envy. Envy because she knew that the rights of the eldest prince, Yudhishtra, would mean that his claim to the throne of Hasitnapura would be foremost. That fit of rage and envy caused her to strike her belly, and she aborted a lump of flesh. From that aborted lump of flesh were born a hundred Kaurava brothers and one sister. The hundred and first lump became Duhshala, who would go on to marry Jayadratha, and that is another story in itself. Gandhari’s envy, literally and figuratively, gave birth to the Kauravas.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Leader’s Temperament – A Leadership Masterclass from the Mahabharata

et's talk about the role of a CEO and what advice would a board advisor give to an incoming CEO? Yes, this is still about the Mahabharta, but we are going to take a detour before getting there.

To strive to maximize shareholder value, to watch out for market trends and unforeseen macroeconomic headwinds, to hire the best, to not ignore the advice of advisors, to put down indiscipline with a firm hand, to be approachable yet not play favourites, and so on. This is the basic ingredient from which tens of thousands of management books, seminars, articles, and more are churned out each year.

In a modern context, while the use of the word "king" may be anachronistic, the basic import of the the Raj-dharma parva of the Mahabharata retains much of its value and relevance. If you substitute the word "king" with "chief minister" or "prime minister", or with "CEO" or "Managing Director", the advice given to the king then could very well be applied to the leaders of today.

When asked by Yudhishthira to elaborate on the true nature of rajadharma, Bhishma's advice is worth its weight in governance gold. Management gurus make a killing and fortune, but the Mahabharata dispenses this advice for free. In this post, therefore, let's look at the advice imparted by Bhishma on the ideal's king's temperament.
Mahabharata, Volume 5, Gorakhpur Gita Press

Monday, May 13, 2019

Stri Parva and Gandhari's Curse

ow do you curse God, and do it justifiably so? What is the arc of the geometry of rage? Does it rise up into a crescendo and then subside after it has found an outlet? Or does it ebb and flow, crest and trough? How does one react to being cursed? How would God react to such a curse? As curses go, there are many instances in the Puranas of gods being cursed. Indra is perhaps in the unfortunate position of being the recipient of the most curses. Even Vishnu was cursed by Narada to be born as a human. But Gandhari cursing Krishna is possibly one without parallel. Dharma was cursed, and was born as Vidura. The Vasus were cursed and had to be born as the sons of Ganga. But a god being cursed? Not only did Gandhari curse Krishna, she cursed his entire tribe, the race of the Yadavas. In it, there are several lessons to be learned.
Mahabharata, Volume 5, Gorakhpur Gita Press

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Like A Girl

Of Omissions and Commissions and Parallel Universes

It is not as if role models for girls are in short supply in India. The problem is more of awareness of such role models. Therefore, when a book like 'Like a Girl', written by Aparna Jain, came along, and when I was approached if I would be interested in reviewing it, I was inquisitive, to say the least. The book is broken up into fifty-one short chapters and read (I listened to the audio book, via Audble) by several persons - Suchitra Pillai, Varsha Varghese, Tisca Chopra, Aparna Jain, Ritu Dalmia, Malishka Mendonsa, Kirti Jayakumar, and Rasika Duggal. This goes nicely with the different chapters that cover different characters, and therefore there is no perceived discontinuity. Each narrator brings her own personality to the rendition. Less can be said about the content, however, which is fairly anodyne and rarely rises above the literary level of a hastily-written Wikipedia article.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A mother who abandoned her son. A mother who could not.

unti abandoned her first-born son, Karna, almost immediately after birth. Gandhari aborted her first foetus out of frustration. There in lies a tale of two mothers.

Kunti did not abort Karna. Perhaps the swiftness with which Karna was born after her union with Lord Surya did not afford her the opportunity, or perhaps she did not want to, since foeticide was an abominable crime. In any case, what the Mahabharata tells us that she did not keep this child. She abandoned him, and the infant was found by the charioteer and raised by his wife, Radha, as their own son. Kunti went on to marry the Kuru king, Pandu, becoming the mother of the five Pandavas. Three of the sons were hers, and two were Madri's. Had she allowed herself to be stained with the stigma of unwed motherhood, perhaps there would not have been a Kunti as we know her. She would not have been even a footnote in the Mahabharata.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Flight of Deities, by Meenakshi Jain

Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples: Episodes from Indian History, by Meenakshi Jain

One-line review: a wrenching tale of the destruction of Hindu temples across the land, the crushing of a culture, the desperate and often doomed attempts to save deities from desecration and destruction, and the tentative, sporadic, diffident shoots of revival - more heard of than seen - point to a once-great civilization in the last throes of its inevitable end.

Short review: Meenakshi Jain's latest book chronicles the destruction of temples, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain, over the centuries at the hands of mostly Islamic invaders, and the attempts made, where possible, by the faithful to preserve the deities by ferreting them out of the temples before the marauders came to destroy temples and idols. These attempts succeeded sometimes, and it would take years, decades, or sometimes, even centuries, for those idols to be retrieved and returned to their rightful place. In many cases, however, the idols were lost forever. Wherever temples were destroyed, there were consistent attempts to resurrect them and to revive the practice of worship there, but the scale was always diminished, the spirit subdued, a pall of fear hovering the faithful like a shroud, the prospect of a second, third, fourth round of destruction never far away. In some cases, like Kashmir, even the memory of temples destroyed has faded. While the rise of British colonialism would wreak further untold havoc on the economy and the spirit of the nation, the one good that seems to have come out from colonialism was the work done by British archaeologists in uncovering and documenting scores of accounts of temple destruction. After independence, any hopes of a revival of a faith suppressed for a millennia would soon be cruelly crushed. Between the criminal apathy shown by the Archaeological Survey of India, a rapacious state that took over the control and management of Hindu temples, starving them of funds and looting their lands, and an educational system that instills a deep sense of hatred of Hinduism among Hindus, it may not be an exaggeration to state that the final nail in Hinduism's coffin, in a manner of speaking, has been planted.

Long review:
Out of sight, out of mind - goes the adage. The same could be said about Hindu temples also. As the temples of the Hindus were destroyed across the land, so did the memory about places that had once been sacred for centuries or more fade. Adherents did what they could to sustain their faith, but even that diminished over the years as their numbers themselves diminished. Eventually, memories of sacred places and temples would live on only in oral traditions and sometimes written accounts. Meenakshi Jain's book is an account of the destruction of Hindu temples, their deities, the flight of some of those deities, and the sporadic and desperate attempts to revive those places of worship and return the deities to their original abode.

Multan was first referred to its modern name by the Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang, who came to Multan in 641 CE, and called the town Mulasthanpura (city of the frontier land). Tradition held that Multan was founded by the sage Kashyapa, father of the twelve Adityas. Kashyapa's son, Hiranyakashyipu, was killed by Vishnu's incarnation, Narasimha, at Multan. The Sun temple at Multan was supposed to have been constructed by Samba, Krishna's son, who initiated Sun worship in the town. Another temple at Multan, the Prahladpuri temple, was where the festival of Holika dahan commenced. To say that Multan was an important and sacred city in the geography of Hinduism would be an understatement.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Chalta Hai India, by Alpesh Patel

Chalta Hai India: When ‘It’s Ok!’ is Not Ok, by Alpesh Patel

Amazon IN, Kindle IN

Publisher: Bloomsbury India (October 2018)
ISBN-10: 9388038665, ISBN-13: 978-9388038669

Necessity may be the mother of invention, and in some cases, the midwife of innovation. In India, poverty, under-industrialization, a closed economy, and a socialist model of economic planning kept her in abject poverty for decades. Every little step taken necessitated innumerable hacks and compromises. Over time, this band-aid approach became popularized as "jugaad". Its romanticizing apart, jugaad was in reality a byword for compromises, corner cutting, and a rationalization of mediocrity. It became a stick to beat anyone up with who questioned sloppiness and demanded world-class perfection. Chalta-hai - it's OK, became the catch-all phrase to justify shoddy quality.

The premise of the book is simple and straightforward enough - is India a "chalta-hai" nation? Are we consistently and uniformly accepting of mediocrity? Is this a relatively recent phenomenon, or has it been an immutable part of our nation? What are the symptoms of a “chalta hai” attitude? Can we break it down further? Is it pervasive across every sphere of life, or are there bright spots of excellence that one can look to for inspiration?

Let’s take two examples, both stark. In 1950, the author writes, both India and China had roughly the same share of global GDP. By 2015, China’s share of global GDP had shot to 16 percent, while India was at 7 percent.